Did your teachers ever educate you about mental illness? About the facts and figures of the people in our society today, suffering from one? What depression, anxiety or bi polar truly means? What to do if you find your mental health starts to affect you negatively or how to cope with it? Did they teach you what to do if someone close to you is suffering from a mental illness? Or did they at least teach you that it is ok and completely normal for your mental health to be, well, a bit mental?
No? Me either!
Before going any further, I’m not blaming my teachers or anyone else’s for the lack of knowledge regarding mental illness, I blame the education curriculum.
If you have read any of my previous blog posts, you’ll be aware that in Me, Myself & Gucci, I finally ‘came out’ as an anxiety sufferer. I’m not your stereotypical view of a person with anxiety; I enjoy flying, I’m not afraid of confrontation, I’m a good public speaker and I love a good selfie but put me in a room full of people that know a loved one or a group of people who are already friends, then you may as well set me up on death row. Weird, I know!
What’s also weird is that in this day and age people still don’t know the difference between anxiety and depression. But what is aggravating is that having anxiety is nearly as cool as having the latest iPhone going by the many self diagnoses I hear of regularly. If I were to be honest with you, I wish my anxiety was defined by not knowing what to wear for a Friday night out or sitting on Sunday evening knowing I have to get up at 7:30am for a Monday morning.
Anxiety isn’t about trying to choose where you’re going for a bite to eat for your one hour lunch break, quickly. I’m exhausted, and have been for some time and I’ve come to realise that managing my anxiety is absolutely draining. That’s how coping with anxiety every day leaves you, tired. Maybe that’s why I don’t have the energy to be social.
People assume anxiety is just worrying about things all the time, it’s not. It’s second guessing yourself as well as everyone else around you, it’s not being able to sleep or sleeping too much, it is constant tension in your muscles from the strain of panic attacks, over thinking everything and just about anything, it’s your mind and thoughts refusing to cooperate no matter what important things you need to do.
My anxiety makes me detest surprises, unexpected visits, disrupted plans and silences in groups of people. It makes me rather walk an extra half a mile to avoid speaking to someone I know that I just seen in the street because I would rather die than have unexpected conversation. I’m very conscious of embarrassing my loved ones, which results in me feeling uncomfortable when surrounded by ‘their’ people. This often leads to me needing a lot of encouragement before turning up at an event that is not filled with my friends, family, colleagues or industry people. Trust me when I say, my anxiety does not make me worry about people liking me, I do not give a sh!t if I am liked. Being realistic why should I care about you liking me? Sadly most of you don’t even like yourselves.
Dealing with the anxiety is hard, sometimes harder than coping with the panic attacks – then again, sometimes not. Trying to explain a panic or anxiety attack to someone who’s never had or witnessed one is difficult. Do you ever have the sharpest pains in your stomach or heave because you need to vomit but nothing comes up but the burning in your throat is still there? Have you ever been shivering so badly because you feel your blood is the temperature of ice but are sweating due to the speed of your heart? Do you know how it feels to have your chest feel so tight because of the intense pounding of your heart or when you’re so dizzy, your eyesight is blurry? Surely you know how it feels for your head to go so light you feel you’re about to faint? Have you ever felt the walls in a room are coming in on top of you and not being able to breathe because of this?
Well, imagine all of the above happening at the one time. Most people’s worst nightmare. ‘Calm down, just control it’, you say? I’m in as much control over this as I am over stopping the rain.
When my anxiety gets the better of me, the best way I was able to describe it before I realised what was ‘wrong’ with me was; imagine your head split into tenths, nine tenths of it is terrified, panicking, stressed, exhausted not knowing how to deal with certain situations or conversations but the other one tenth is normal, reminds you that things will be ok, you’re not crazy and it will pass. To this day, I’m convinced that the one tenth of my brain is what has kept me sane.
I’m starting to accept it, be open about it and talk about it which helps. The stress of trying to beat it isn’t there anymore but I do have days where I am angry because I can’t control it and others where I get embarrassed because people think I can ‘just calm down’. Would you tell a blind person to look closer or a deaf person to listen harder? Well telling an anxiety sufferer, they’re over reacting/thinking and they just need to calm down is not an appropriate way to deal with it.
** names have been changed for confidentiality purposes
I remember when I decided it was time to learn about my invisible illness. A local lady, Shannon** who suffered from different mental health issues was holding a workshop for four weeks about anxiety. I missed week 1 so due to my anxiety, I didn’t want to attend alone as I knew the people there would already know each other, so my boyfriend accompanied me (it helped him a lot in fairness, understanding how things worked in my head). When I arrived, I wanted to be sick, I’m not sure if it was because I was finally facing reality, because I didn’t know anyone or because I was in a class like room – maybe a mix of all three!
It was quiet, there was Shannon, her cousin Anna** slightly older than me, who also suffered from mental health problems and another girl Claire** who was around my age suffering anxiety. Claire also brought her boyfriend for support. Shannon asked us all to introduce ourselves and speak about our illness (if we liked) as I was new. I did feel comfortable in the room, the girls where down to earth and very open which made me feel instantly comfortable. Shannon went first, then Anna, followed by Claire… Then it was my turn. I got my name out fine, paused, felt a lump in my throat and immediately tried to distract my thoughts from the tears filling in my eyes. I’m still unaware of the length of time I sat in silence trying to prevent the tears from falling but I then progressed to tell my anxiety story. I started with admitting it, which was probably the hardest part and then the tears started falling, the more I tried to hold them in the more ridiculous my voice became. I was comforted by the other girls in the room and that’s when I felt relief; they’d all been there before, they understood which made it easier for me.
With the consolation of everyone in the room, I was starting to realise what my anxiety was doing and in which ways it affected me, why I over thought everything, why I hated answering phone calls and avoided it at all costs, why I avoided looking in my Facebook inbox to check messages, why I detested small talk with people who were not my close friends – it made me feel awkward, why I always wanted to leave parties, events or gatherings early and why I preferred to arrive late to avoid any discomfort. In fairness, knowing this hasn’t exactly helped the situation regarding to me no longer doing the above because I do but it’s helped me deal with at least knowing why.
I shut down mentally, didn’t want to socialise and felt uncomfortable being in contact with friends because I didn’t know how to open up about my illness and didn’t realise there was a way they’d understand. I was insecure about people thinking I was looking for attention, because that’s the way society is – we are not taught to understand mental health and mental illnesses. It is acceptable to call someone an attention seeker for breaking down though?
Thankfully my judge of character was right again when I realised my close friends were that
for a reason, I still get texts now when I haven’t been in contact, the latest stating, “I hope you’re ok, get in touch, I miss you”. I still get invited to go places and do things despite the many invites I turn down because of my anxiety but it helps when people understand the reason behind it all.
Don’t get me wrong I did have a handful of friends who threw it back in my face once I admitted my mental illness, one blamed my work and blamed the fact that I was on TV – calling me ‘stuck up’ and another blamed my relationship.
Anxiety is a vicious circle of isolating yourself but not wanting to be alone. You isolate yourself for many reasons, not wanting to bother people, not wanting to appear like you’re looking for attention and feeling people are looking down on you. You feel like people are leaving so you push them away in prevention of being hurt when no one was ever leaving in the first place.
Why are you allowed to openly say that you have a headache or a stomach ache or that the arm you broke last week is sore but I’m not allowed to admit that today my anxiety is making me feel vulnerable?
I’m lucky though, I have friends who still love me, my stepfather makes me laugh every day I speak to him, my little brother is making me more and more proud as he gets older every day, my boyfriend has the patience of a saint and helps me through everything big or small despite what he has to do, my mammy is the definition of a best friend, sister and mother in one who can distract me from my thoughts and of course Gucci solves everything with a cuddle.
We can no longer complain about the stigma regarding mental health, if we who suffer do not speak openly about our suffering and force those who don’t understand, to learn.
#HelpBreakMentalHealthStigma #SpeakUpTogether #ItsOkToSay